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No one cares about your stupid little startup – 5 tips to make them care

This post is adapted from a talk I gave at Sutherland Gold’s PR Bootcamp in October 2009.

The title of this post “No one cares about your stupid little startup” was a message I learned in the earliest days of Xobni during a phone call with SiteAdvisor and Hunch founder Chris Dixon.   To this day, I still haven’t met Chris in person (Chris if you come across this post, we’ve got to catch up next time I’m in NYC), but this one phrase has guided every step of my thinking for Xobni’s PR strategy for the past 3 and a half years.

I’ve embeded my presentation below.  The presentation will take you through our path to 3 million downloads.  The first half of the presentation isn’t PR specific but outlines our stages of user development.  I outline how we rolled our product out to the masses through carefully planned stages: stealth, closed beta, nerd scarcity, invite beta, public beta,official launch, and business model driven growth (the current stage).

The second half of the presentation specifically focuses on five tips and case studies for how to drive awareness for your startup through PR.  I’ve  broken out the latter half of the presentation below and included much more explanation than I was able to put in powerpoint.

Here is a link to the preso just incase the embed above doesn’t work for you

1.  Tie yourself to a bigger trend

This is the best way for a startup to hack the PR system.  There are thousands of startups.  Why should a journalist write about yours?  Yet, they all love to write about Facebook, Information Overload,  and Google vs. Microsoft.  So, tie yourself to one of these trends.

For Xobni, we tied ourselves to the following trends

  • The web inside your inbox
  • Facebook crossing into the business world
  • Email, the oldest social network
  • Enterprise software is going grassroots
  • Email overload

But you can’t just say you are part of a trend, you have to make some noise so people pay attention.  So here is what we did.

Remember a couple years ago how Facebook would send you an email that said “you have a message,” but didn’t send you the content of the message?  I hated that.   Turns out, a lot of people hated this.

FacebookMessage

So, one night we made a Facebook app that would put a big button on your Facebook page that said “Stop!  Email Me Instead” and when a user clicked the button, it opened an email addressed to you.   You could also one-click reply to any Facebook message with this button and kindly ask the sender “Please email me instead.”

EmailMeButton10 thousand people installed our app in less than a week. Fred Wilson, VentureBeat, and others wrote about it.  We hadn’t even announced what Xobni’s real product was and yet we were already working on our PR.

2.  Take every opportunity to meet a journalist in person

I won’t say much, other than two quick corollaries.  First, use a product feedback session as a way to build a relationship before you are ever looking for a story. Tech journalists like Arrington, Om, Rafe and others have seen a lot products come and go.  They have a good idea of what works.  Have them look at your product way before you need that press hit  “ah.” (arm slap, arm slap – think trainspotting heroin injection)  You’ll get some good product feedback and you’ll build a relationship that is deeper than any press release.

Second, this all become much easier if you are in a tech capital where tech journalists and bloggers are living their lives.  The ability to bump into a writer from the WSJ, TechCrunch, or CNet on a street corner is an under appreciated benefit of basing your company in the SFBay.

3.  Heavily engage with users – WOM is better than PR

A few things we’ve done that seemed to work well:

  • Our 5th employee was a customer support guy
  • We have an elite alpha forum of 500 users that test and provide feedback way ahead of the general public.  And they worship Tyler our QA lead and his rare form of tough love.

    tyler

    Tough Love Tyler

  • We continue to stay focused on individual users.  I try to do one phone call per week with a user.  It resulted in a good blog series.
  • We have a special twitter handle for customer support xobni_support
  • And we send out a lot of t-shirts :)

Zappos.com is one company that has made their blue ribbon customer support a PR story in and of itself.

4.  Journalists are people.  People are lazy.  Therefore, journalists are lazy.

Most startups are on to this trick.  Just like you design your product for the expected laziness of your users, build a press center for lazy journalists.  They are people too.

We have a webpage dedicated to everything a journalist could ever need (screenshots, videos, company history, investors) in one spot.  A product video on youtube can do miracles.  You can help a blogger understand your product without having to try it and they’ll often put the youtube video in their blog.


5.  Be a source  of data

The press may not care about your product, but they often will care about the data your company has can provide.  Do you remember Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction” during the Superbowl?  It was the most replayed piece of television ever recorded.  Tivo had the data.

TivoCnn

I know that was the first time I ever thought, “Damn, I wish I had a Tivo.”

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  • Steve Smith

    I have a small company that is growing leaps and bounds just through a set of well made youtube videos.  Until we got onto the idea of video, our pr dept was hitting their head against a brick wall.  Video has made such a dramatic impact on our sales that I can´t imagine that there are companies that are not using this as a primary pr tool.  Thanks for the read, excellent information and some ideas that I wouldn´t even have thought of.

    Cheers, Stevehttp://youngdriversinsura...

  • Isla Pergola

    PR is extremely challenging, especially when you are first starting out.  It is really difficult to find the right route and then stick to it.  Thanks for the insights and I´ll be referring back to this article again with our little companies next launch.

    pergola designs

  • Stuart Gitsham

    This was a good article providing sound practical advice. One thing I would add. Find a professional pr person to help you. PR is labour intensive. At some point you will need assistance. Avoid large agencies, they are expensive and insitutional in their thinking. Find the guy that worked in a big agency, has a good reputation and is now going it alone.

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